Sunday, July 15, 2007

What's wrong with American Education?

Along with the Iraq war, dealing with immigration, and health care, the poor performance of the institution of American Education is among the most severe of the problems seen facing the nation. Yet, depending on the source, the definition of our unease varies widely.

The definition of Educations failure comes in many forms, largely based on the source from which it originates. The victims (students) of course, have their own definition school is boring, useless, with its only value one of meeting friends and, for some, participating in sports. Try asking a kid what he learned in school today, and you will get the thousand mile stare, which quickly informs you of your membership in the group of those, intellectually challenged.

Parents have many complaints. If children are in their teens or older, they have changed from the compliant, respectful children so fondly remembered, to defiant, lying, empty-headed, drug-using, promiscuous brats. (Think Beaver Cleaver morphing into Damien). They are certain that it results from their kids heads being filled with all kinds of ideas that have no place in a traditional American home. Worse yet, if the parents are financially supporting a $25,000 a year college tuition to get these results.

Teachers look at their unmotivated, cheating, noisy classes, with occasional deadly violence thrown in, and either leave the profession, or stay, longing for the days when students were eager to learn, respectful, did their homework, and trembled at the threat of a parent conference or a failing grade.

Employers come closest to describing the problem as they bemoan the inability of employees to perform their jobs, their lack of productivity, motivation, and perhaps most of all, honesty and integrity. Remedial and on-the-job training have become the norm rather than the exception in the private sector. There no longer exists a ready pool of exceptional candidates for positions requiring knowledge, skill, and judgment, even with many more graduates coming from the colleges and universities. Instead, employers seek an increasingly immigration-restricted pool of foreign technical and scientific workers. In Government, from the President of the United States all the way down to the lowliest DMV clerk, raging and complete incompetence is the rule of the day. None of them can get it right, even when they try, and most of the time theyre not even making the effort.

If all of the above is true, how have we made the enormous leaps in technology, science, medicine, and consumer electronics during the last half century? The answer, it seems to me, is that this progress has resulted in spite of, rather than because of the institution of Education in this country. From the rebellious drive that fostered the Revolution through the tenaciousness of the 19th century inventors, to the non-conforming brilliance of Einstein and the purposeful drive of the thousands of university academics and their graduate students, we still maintain a hugely rich source of intellectual power. Yet, we no longer stand alone as the worlds leader in brain power.

Billions of dollars, a giant bureaucracy (the Department of Education), new Internet instructional tools, and thousands of people have been thrown at the challenge, with no evident reversal of this problem. All of the statements above represent different perceptions of the results of educational failure, but fail to make clear what is and has been missing. Thus, it seems appropriate to attempt a specific description of those elements of the educational process which have proved to be so intractable to any and all efforts to remedy them.

If we look at the research, and engage in honest discussion with the participants (educators and students) the missing or distorted pieces of the puzzle are really not that difficult to isolate. They come down to three specific failures: Neurobiology, Mission Ambiguity, and Untaught Skills. The origin of these failures and how to fix them are well beyond the scope of this article; the dialog which must first be opened is to secure agreement about just what needs to be fixed.

Knowledge of Neurobiology:

Some things about the development of a growing brain are very evident. You don't expect a seventh grade student to handle the concepts of calculus. You don't need formal training in neuroscience to understand that this particular brain is just not ready to deal with such complex ideas.

Yet, parents and teachers are puzzled and concerned at the emotionally driven behavior demonstrated by high school students. Promiscuous sexual behavior, emotional outbursts, drug and alcohol use, and dangerous driving all come from the same cause.

That part of the brain responsible for careful judgment has far less power than does the amygdala, the center of the brain driving emotional impulse and behavior. Having peers around makes the situation even worse. Still, with all the research already assembled, many adults fail to accept that this is a part of the adolescents storm which must be weathered. Nonethelesas, adults interacting with this kid tend to react with anger, and mete out punishment, rather than providing responses appropriate to helping him gain control over his problem.

Mission Ambiguity

Ask any high-school student to name something he considers important, that he has learned today, this semester, or for that matter, during his school career to date. The chances are pretty good that he is going to have a difficult time providing a credible answer. Have friends who teach? Ask this: Suppose the classes you teach were removed from your schools class offerings. What would students taking these classes have lost? If everyone is being honest, any answer other than conformity to social expectations is going to be hard to find.

Students spend their lives in public schoosl, (and a good chunk of their undergraduate education) wondering just why they are there. For many, it is like learning a role for a play. You play your part, are rewarded with good grades, but when the curtain comes down (graduation), what are you left with? It seems to me that this ambiguity, this undefined sense of purpose and value, explains a good deal of the failure of the institution to impart genuine learning. Without a perception of real value, motivation directed at making use of what is offered simply is not going to be there.

Untaught Skills

American children spend something in excess of 20,000 hours attending school from the time they enter elementary education until they graduate some 12 years later. Yet, while repeatedly tested, it is really somewhat of a mystery what learning actually occurs. And there is a great deal of research that suggests that approximately 80% of everything taught in public education consists of rote memorization. Another 10 to 15% of learning is devoted to "problem-solving." This is stuff like solving an algebra problem, programming your computer, or building a birdhouse. Students, in essence, learn rules to achieve certain desired results.

When you ask those who are critical of education what it is that students lack, you will repeatedly hear the phrase, "critical thinking skills." Indeed, those are the skills moat students never are taught. In 1957, an educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, forever changed our understanding of the possibilities for structuring learning in our schools. He developed what has come to be known as a Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. This taxonomy (classification system) categorized all learning, using a set of descriptive action verbs, making it possible to objectively measure whether desired new behavior was or was not acquired by the learner.

Three categories of behavior, to which less than 10% of the instructional effort is devoted, comprise this sought after domain we call critical thinking. Using some of the definitions and examples as applied to employment settings, it is expected that most readers will agree that these tasks are both essential, but seldom, if ever a part of the public school curriculum.

Analysis: Separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood. Distinguishes between facts and inferences. Business Examples: Troubleshoot a piece of equipment by using logical deduction. Recognize logical fallacies in reasoning. Gathers information from a department and selects the required tasks for training.

Synthesis: Builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements. Put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. Business Examples: Write a company operations or process manual. Design a machine to perform a specific task. Integrates training from several sources to solve a problem. Revises and process to improve the outcome.

Evaluation: Make judgments about the value of ideas or materials. Business Examples: Select the most effective solution. Hire the most qualified candidate. Explain and justify a new budget.

For the last forty years, schools have been using a variety of standardized tests and other measurement tools to compete in the mad scramble for funding, and escape the regulatory nightmares imposed by their respective state Departments of Education. During that period test scores have largely held their own or made modest gains. School integration, affirmative-action programs, and bilingual education all have impacted to varying degrees on the performance scores which have been reported.

If schools are doing as well or a little better than they did 40 years ago at providing instruction to students, what then serves to explain the increasing discontent with school performance? The answer comes from the tremendous changes in the American workforce during that same time. Our national requirements have changed from a workforce largely composed of those who performed physical labor, or provided services to customers to one which is predominantly requires knowledge workers. Those who are engaged in management, scientific, technical, and creative work must have the skills listed above, to a far greater degree then earlier required.

This problem will only be addressed if we apply the same principles and methods of political activism we use to affect public policy, to influencing the curriculum and environment in which public schools operate. There are many pressure points available to parents and teachers. School board elections, teacher unions, and Parent-Teacher associations all provide entry points to the educational system. Yet, nothing will change until there is consensus of just what has to be changed.

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